I had a boyfriend once whose friends knew him by two names: his given name, when he was sober, and his alter-ego name, when he was drunk.
While the alter-ego name, and the wild behaviour that went with it, was a joke among friends, I soon learned that it was no joke as his partner. “Wild” as he became, my typically mild mannered, lovely boyfriend, also became jealous and verbally abusive.
Being harassed, bothered, called names, or otherwise insulted is among a number of forms of second-hand drinking harm, the impact of which researchers are only just starting to capture.
A new study, published in Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, found that one in five Americans experience second-hand drinking damage each year. The numbers in Australia are likely to be considerably higher.
Professor Robin Room, of the The Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University, says we tend to think of drinking-related harm only in its extreme forms: drink driving, foetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-related violence.
By talking only about extremes, it has been easier to separate ourselves, “the rest of us social drinkers”, from “them”, he says.
“Those extreme instances exist in a social milieu... that’s why you get all the rhetoric, that the alcohol industry is very keen on, around responsible drinking, that there’s some sort of easy separation between drinking that’s responsible and drinking that isn’t when it’s actually on a continuum,” Room explains.
“It’s only really in the last 10 years or so that people have started thinking about it in a broader scale and framing it more generally as harm from others’ drinking.”
Framed this way, the second-hand impact of alcohol becomes much more widespread.
Along with harassment or insults, other forms of harm that were common among the 8750 survey participants included feeling threatened or afraid; having clothing or belongings ruined; having house, car, or other property vandalised; being pushed, hit, or assaulted; being physically harmed; being in a traffic accident; being a passenger in a vehicle with a drunk driver; having family problems or marriage difficulties; and having financial trouble.
Although the design of previous Australian research has been slightly different, making direct comparison difficult, Room says that “the rates that people report in Australia are higher than in the US”.
“They’re certainly not lower,” he adds. “The US drinks less, on average than, Australia. About a third of the adults don’t drink at all in the US. In Australia it’s under 20 per cent.”
Across countries, however, there are commonalities. According to research, published earlier this year, women are more likely to report harm due to drinking by a spouse/partner or family member, whereas men are more likely to report harm due to a stranger’s drinking.
Harm also tends to be higher among younger adults, a result of more young people drinking “to get drunk”, Room says, and among those who drink more themselves.
“Though there are a lot of folk, particularly in couples who end up with quite a lot of harm without them doing any drinking or very little drinking,” Room adds. “And women bear a lot of the brunt, particularly in relationships.”
Australian research from 2018 found that women living with a heavy drinking spouse experience higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms and lower satisfaction with life.
Professor Simone Pettigrew, from Curtin University’s School of Psychology and a member of the Alcohol Advertising Review Board Steering Committee, adds that the cost of alcohol-related harm in Australia is estimated to be about $36 billion a year.
“It’s one of those inconvenient truths,” Pettigrew says of the impact of second-hand drinking.
“Eighty per cent of Australian adults drink alcohol, which means big chunks of the population are not interested [in hearing about it] ... and one quarter of Australians binge drink at least once a month.”
Pettigrew says that policy-makers have typically focused on targeting “really specific groups”, like pregnant women and young people, but the rest of Australia needs to take note too.
“There is no safe dose, it’s a carcinogen, it changes the way you behave and it affects the people around us... there are social impacts.”
Room agrees. “Fundamentally, we tend to think of drinking in terms of the harm on the drinker,” he says. “More than, apparently for other drugs, certainly more than for tobacco and more than for illicit drugs, a lot of the harm is to others, not just the drinker.”